December 1: In this digital age, against all expectations, the photogram lives!
It is the simplest form of photography, described by Henry Fox Talbot as ‘fixing shadows’ and it owes its survival to practitioners inventing and reinventing the process. Most students of photography get little further than recording the shadows of the darkroom scissors and dodging tools on a sheet of 10×8 paper, only to give up.
Talbot established the technique, which was the prototype of his ‘photogenic drawing’ and the subsequent calotype. Every print made by Talbot was essentially a photogram. His was a negative/positive process in which the negative from the camera was contact printed onto a fresh sheet of sensitised material to make a positive. It is also the principle of the medical X-Ray. Since then several subsequent photographers have laid claim to having invented the photogram, while others have transformed it and expanded its vocabulary.
One of these was Heinz Hajek-Halke, born in Berlin on this date in 1898 whose Die Flügelmutter (Mother Bird) of 1954 is very different from those of Man Ray or Lazlo Moholy-Nagy.
In fact it appears to be a kind of cliché-verre which involves painting onto the glass plate or film. In this case the ink or paint has pooled and bubbled on the support – which in this case most likely film – and cracked as it dried.
Raised in Argentina, Heinz Hajek-Halke did not return to his native country until he was thirteen, where he was under the guidance of his painter and cartoonist father, Paul Halke. There is a Latin machismo to his imagery combined with teutonic pugnaciousness projected in this self-portrait, and in the artfully chiaroscuro, unretouched oiled-up nudes he produced in the 1920s and 30s. Their experimental, expressionist appearance developed after he broke his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts to serve in World War I and worked with Jewish fashion photographer Yva (Else Neuländer) and Willy Ruge at the Press Photo Agency and there produced his first first montages. Ruge was a daredevil who recorded his parachute jump from a plane in radical ‘first person’ frames including his view into the parachute and his dangling feet.
Hajek-Halke’s self-portrait at thirty is of a type that we can be thankful has largely disappeared from the photographic scene; the braggadocio hot-blood. The photograph is seriously back-focussed on his (presumably red) gypsy kerchief to the point where most would call it a failure, but Hajek-Halke’s high contrast printing of the theatrical ‘horror’ lighting imbues it with the qualities of an acquaint etching. You can read his self-styled ‘anarchist’ attitude in his baleful one-eyed stare…and is that a real scar?
In 1927 he met Bruno Schultz, the editor of the yearbook Der Deutsche Foto and for him worked on layout, photo editing and some of the first advertising photographs using experimental techniques. In 1933 he escaped Goebbels’ National Socialist Propaganda Ministry’s demands that he fake documentaries by assuming the name Heinz Halke and moving to Lake Constance which because it lies across undetermined borders of Austria, Germany and Switzerland was a relatively safe haven. Yva (Else Neuländer) was not so lucky, being forced to work as a radiologist for the Nazis she was killed in a concertation camp in WW2. Hajek-Halke eked out a photojournalistic living by the Lake with macro shots of invertebrates made with a large format camera capable of a 1 metre bellows extension, which produced results like this Amblypygi whose claws rhyme with the gravestone inscription on which it crawls.
Hajek-Halke’s life though the war years was full; he made photo stories in Brazil, was conscripted of the Wehrmacht as a factory hand and aerial photographer, dodged capture by the French after the war and set up a viper farm selling snake antivenin to the pharmaceutical industry.
His innovations of the period included wire sculptures as devices for his light graphics including the city scene (left below). The technique is revealed in this 1950s self-portrait (left) in which he has twisted wire to the contour of his face and rotated it during a long exposure to produce the repetitive linear effect.
In 1948 he met Toni Schneiders, co-founder with Otto Steinert of Fotoform which he joined and which until 1958 was the preeminent group of avant-garde West German photographers.
From 1955 he was professor of photography and photo graphics at the Academy of Fine Arts (now University of the Arts ) in Berlin and his influence also spread through publications he produced during this period. Now being rediscovered, his photograms are amongst his most sought-after imagery, now fetching up to €20,000.
The scale of Heinz Hajek-Halke images is sometimes huge (above), and so are very different photograms again being produced now by Australian Harry Nankin who since 1993 has been using camera-less processes to reveal, as he says on his generous website, the abject, ambient, transient and invisible— in the studio (Cathexis series) and on location in forest (I, Terra, Thou, The Rain), desert (Contact, The Impossibility), atop mountains (Ekkyklema, Moth Liturgy) and under the sea (The Wave).
Aboriginal populations of what is now Gippsland in Victoria, and Southern New South Wales, gathered seasonally over a period of around 7,000 years in the mountains of the Bogong High Plains to feast on Bogong Moths (Agrotis infusa) which once collected in vast numbers in Spring. Capture was easily made by running a stick over the moths so that they fell into woven baskets, or by smoking them out of crevices, and then they were roasted and ground into a paste for eating. This was a tradition which continued up to until European colonisation, though now the moth numbers are diminishing, with their yearly invasions of our cities that I remember as a child now becoming rare.
Nankin also gathered the moths, alive, from a summit cave at Mount Buffalo, capturing them at night on photographic films suspended behind them by exposing them with flash (no camera), resulting in black and white negatives on which were the shadows of the creatures at life-size. The sense of their vigorous fluttering is conveyed by a particular effect of the photogram by which objects touching the photographic surface are rendered sharper and, in the negative, as clear pure white (black on the second-generation print). Forms not actually touching the film become fainter and blurrier, which here include the wings of sitting moths and their companions who are in flight.
It is this use of flash that enabled Nankin to achieve some success in capturing the ghostly, ephemeral image of waves on paper placed under the water at Bushranger Bay on the tip of the Mornington Peninsular facing the roaring shipwreck seas of Bass Strait.
Flash exposure and the immersion of the photogram material in the physical environment leaves us with traces that truly are ‘fixed shadows’, recording, as Nankin declares, the fleeting disappearance of threatened species.
Harry Nankin’s ‘Syzygy’ is on show at RMIT Gallery in Melbourne to 18 Feb 2017.